The Milner Park history of the Rand Easter Show (or Witwatersrand Agricultural Show as it was known)
In 1903 Lord Milner got the Transvaal government to donate a large open space to the city as a gift. It was named Milner Park and was to become the new site of the show. The land was given in freehold to the Johannesburg municipality and later leased it to the society for 80 years (until 1986) for a rent of fifty Pounds per year.
The site was well placed being close to the tram line that went down what is now Jan Smuts Ave and a short distance from Braamfontein station. Nine months before the 1907 show, the land was a brickfield and rubbish dump and the society, having being dormant for several years during and after the war had hardly any members. That was soon to change.
The 1907 show was opened on the 15th May by Lord Selborne and was a success except for attendance which poor probably due to the miner’s strike and the tram workers who downed tools (or trams) in support. Times were tough and a depression hung over the town. Regardless, the 1908 show plan went ahead once again led by Lionel Phillips.
The 1908 show had its first ‘ladies section’ and home industries led by Lady Selborne and Mrs. Phillips to promote cottage industry production using home-grown products. Even though there were still problems, the show improved on the previous year. 1909 was even better since the prevailing economy and mood improved. The trams also transported people right to the entrance. 1909 was the first year the show made a profit even though it had spent (mostly by mining donations) huge sums on buildings and improvements. The new buildings, some in Cape Dutch style, were designed by Frank Emley.
Shows went on from strength to strength. In 1911, motor traders applied for space at the show. The automobile had arrived, despite the difficulties in driving one where no roads, fuel or service stations existed. By 1912 the grounds had increased in size to border Yale road (the road next to the current highway where the planetarium is) and down west to the dip where the stream (Braamfontein Spruit) lies.
The 1914 show broke all records again as did the following three shows. By 1918, the show was now being referred to as the ‘Easter Show’ as it was now commonly being held on ‘Good Friday’ which proved to be a very profitable day. Churchmen were up in arms, but it didn’t change until 1952.
1922 saw the Rand Revolt and mining strike. On 14 March at least 6000 refugees crammed into the grounds to avoid the gunfire around Fordsburg and Brixton. They caused a large amount of damage and the 1922 show had to be pushed back a week to accommodate repairs. Despite this, the show was a success given the climate.
In July 1924 the society leased a further 58 acres of land (of poor quality) to the north of the current showground for 66 years. This extended the grounds down to Empire road.
Both the Anglo American Amusement Corporation and Schlesinger Company Africa Amusement Parks LTD were involved in the show as it diversified offering more entertainment to attract a wider paying audience. In 1928 water-borne lavatories were installed and show-goers were charged 1d a time for the experience…
In 1930 Yale Road was tarred and 1932 the society acquired the government quarry to the north which was converted into a car park (which it mostly still is for UJ today)
The 1936 Rand Show (that also featured Boswell’s Circus) was a major success and financial turning point for the society having come out of several lean years due to the depression. 5 months later another exhibition was planned. The preparation was to add many new buildings, halls and stands as well as additional electrical and plumbing capacity to the site.
1936 Empire Exhibition at Milner Park was opened on the 15 September 1936 by Governor-General, the Earl of Clarendon. The exhibition drew over 2 million people (over the 4 months that it was open) and put South Africa on the world’s industrial map.
The still standing ‘Tower of Light’ was erected by ‘The Electrical Supply Commission and the Victorian Falls & Transvaal Power Company’ as part of the 1936 Empire Exhibition in honour of Johannesburg’s 50th birthday.
Eric Rosenthal wrote in his book ‘Memories & sketches’ about singer Gracie Fields who attended the Empire show and joked with staff in her broad Lancashire accent. Also mentioned was that 2 days before the opening, Johannesburg had snowfall – a rare event itself. The show officially closed on 6 January 1937 (although records show it was meant to close on 15 January). The exhibition also hosted the first ice-skating rink since the disastrous Niagara closed in 1910. The ice did not melt this time and the rink proved so successful that after the exhibition ended, the whole set-up was moved to Wembley in the South of Johannesburg. It was still running at the time his book was published in 1979. Eric Rosenthal was the publicity manager the Empire Exhibition and has also written more than 30 books on the history of Johannesburg and South Africa covering a wide range of subjects.
1937 proved to be a bad year. All the new buildings that also included a lake had increased the costs of maintenance. Those buildings that were not donated or purchased were demolished. Heavy rains kept the crowds away and also damaged the roads that had to be re-tarred. Add to this the fact that Empire Exhibition went on until January 1937 thereby diminishing the public’s appetite for another show just months later.
The 1940 show with its heavy military leaning due to the outbreak of WWII showed the highest attendance ever (124,688 beating 1929 by a mere 1000). There were no shows between 1941 and 1945 as the Department of Defense used most of the ground for war efforts. Going into 1946, the society showed a healthy bank balance due to income from leasing ground to the government during the war and from profits from smaller cattle and horse shows.
The 1946 show coming after the war and years of shortage and rationing broke all previous records with attendance at 201,059.
The 1947 show was opened by His Majesty King George VI and the Royal family. Again, attendance records were broken with 241,405 going through the gate. The society also rented parts of the ground out for income when not in use. Notably, Boswell’s Circus was a major customer using part of the southern portion near Empire Road.
The general election of July 1948 was won (to the surprise of many) by the Nationalist Party under Dr. D.F. Malan. The climate changed almost overnight with an upsurge in Afrikaaner traditions and rights including the ongoing fight not to have the show open on Good Friday. It did however close for the first time on Good Friday on 11 April 1952. It rained all day.
The 1955 show broke the half-a-million mark in attendance for the first time. By 1960 it would reach 755,821 despite the politics and ever repressing apartheid policies of the day.
It was at the 1960 show that an assassination attempt was made on Prime Minister Verwoed by David Beresford Pratt (whose family were members of the show and donors of the Arthur Pratt Memorial Trophy). The Pratt’s also owned a sweet factory which was in Doornfontein on Saratoga Avenue . The building, which still stands, is across the road from Ponte and near the ‘coffin building’ on the UJ campus. The façade of the building was demolished when Saratogo was widened for the bus lanes around 2010.
Separate entrance gates for different races were instituted in 1964
In 1962 land running next to Yale Road was expropriated by the council for the M2 highway. Bulldozers moved in during 1967.
A fully functional cable car system was installed in 1964 that ran up Victoria Avenue. 24,838 people rode it that year. 5 minutes before the 10am closing on the 19th March, one of the gondolas fell off injuring two passengers (who were total strangers and ended up getting married after the bizarre introduction). The cable way was closed until 1965
In 1984 the Rand Show moved to the Johannesburg Expo Centre in Nasrec near Soweto where it has been held ever since except for 2009 when it moved to Gallagher Estate in Midrand.
Milner Park is now the western campus of WITS.
Holy Trinity Church, Bertha Street
The church was founded by Trappist Monks in 1897 and the first building completed in 1899. The current building, nestled between WITS and the building with the once revolving restaurant, was designed by Brendan Joseph Clinch and completed in 1938. Clinch designed several buildings in the 1930s and 1940s including the Catholic Churches in Rosebank and Yeoville, buildings for Marists Brothers College in Inanda and classrooms and hall for the Holy Family Convent in Parktown. It is possible, but unclear, if the Nunnery building around the corner was part of the original church.
Nunnery building, Jorrison Street
This was a church hall/convent building and was possibly once part of the original Holy Trinity Church. It was converted into makeshift theatre in the 1970s and still stands. This link tells the story of the conversion.
Brewery on the Hill
Early maps show an area on the hill called ‘Dalamore’s Lease’. This area was to the north of Ameshoff Street where the Liberty Life and SAB headquarters now stand. John Walter Dalamore (1847-1934) had a lease (no. 127) granted by the government in 1892 and it was noted he had a mineral-water works on the site. It has been recorded that Dalamore was in Johannesburg in 1886. The land then appears to have gone up for sale in 1893.
In 1904, plans were approved on a portion of Dalamore’s Lease for a house for the assistant manager of Ohlsson’s Cape Brewery. It was designed by architect E.C. Choinier of Saville House in August 1904. The house was close to the corner of Ameshoff and Melle Streets. The manager also got a house by the same architect (who also designed the brewery) around the same time.
Plans were approved for the Ohlsson’s Cape Breweries LTD to erect various structures on 26 May 1905 at a cost of 25 000 Pounds. Also of interest is a note on the application approval that reads ‘5 bldgs removed’ which seems to indicate that there were existing structures on the site – perhaps Dalamore’s mineral water works. In 1965 there was still a brewery on the site. The aerial picture (at the start of this piece) show LION painted on the roof which was SAB’s well known Lion Lager that was discontinued in the 1990s (not verified) after a failed re-launch. Interestingly, Ohlssons and SAB (driven by Castle Breweries whose plant was in town where Carlton Centre now stands) were competitors in the early 1900s. A merger was first mooted in 1899 but abandoned. Both breweries, however, collaborated on both hops and barley production in South Africa. In 1956, SAB eventually bought out Ohlssons Cape Breweries. In 1963, SAB establish their head office on the old Ohlsson’s Brewery site at No.2 Jan Smuts Ave.
There was also a well-known tram stop known as the ‘brewery tram stop’ which was at the top of Jan Smuts Avenue. There was once a line from it, directly through WITS before it was built, that ended up near the gates of the show grounds. It was closed off as a public way by the university.
Helpmekaar School, Cnr Empire & Jan Smuts Avenue
The school (first Afrikaans school in Johannesburg) was established in 1921 (as a mixed school in the old Irene Church opposite the Union Ground in Plein Stret) and the building completed in 1925. The foundation stone was laid by J. B. M. Hertzog. It was designed by the PWD and chief architect J. S. Cleland who complied with the then current style of government buildings in England and its colonies. It is designed in Traditional Style with elements of Neo-Classicism with red brick walls and red tile roof. The school stands next to where an early version of the Rand Show was held.
University of Witwatersrand, 1 Jan Smuts Avenue
Opposite Milner Park is the main campus of WITS University. It began in Kimberly in 1896 as the South African School of Mines and was moved to Johannesburg in 1904 as part of the Transvaal Technical Institute. The TTI began classes in 1905 and became the Transvaal University College in 1906. It opened a branch in Pretoria in 1907 which was the forerunner of that City’s University. On 1 March 1922 the University of Witwatersrand was formally created. The land was donated by the city council in 1916. In 1918 a design competition was held for the layout of the terrain and one for the main building. It was won by Frank Emley.
The foundation stone for the central block was laid by Prince Arthur of Connaught on 4th October 1922. The main block was built in stages from 1924 and was originally designed (with assistance by F. Williamson and the firm Cowin & Powers. Williamson would later join Emley to form Emley & Williamson, who, in the 1930s, designed the still standing Anstey’s building – once the second tallest building in Africa) with a large central done that had to be abandoned due to the high cost. The style is Roman civic with a nod to the neo-classical buildings of Washington DC.
As a side note, the showgrounds railway siding (extended from Braamfontein station and constructed in 1911) was used for the delivery of all the university’s building materials and the tram line from the brewery to the show used for transporting it closer to where it was needed when no show was on.
Old Fever Hospital, Hoofd Street
This was built sometime in the 1920s by the Public Works Department under the direction of J.S. Cleland (mentioned above as designer of the Helpmekaar School). It is now part of the Braampark office park. Some of the original buildings remain while others have been incorporated into newer structures. There is not much information on the Fever Hospital, but it was part of a collection of medical facilities around Hospital Hill. From WITS alumni site: “Clinical experience was provided by the Johannesburg General Hospital (and the later associated hospitals, the Fever Hospital, the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, the Transvaal Memorial Hospital for Children and the Non-European Hospital)”
I found this quote about Braamfontein in A. P. Cartwright’s ‘Corner House’:
“Braamfontein was an unlucky farm. Its southern boundary fell short of the outcrop of the Main Reef by approximately 1,000 yards. Beyond it lay Turffontein and the various portions of Langlaagte on which the gold was found. But Braamfontein, though it was prospected more thoroughly than any other farm on the Witwatersrand before the dip of the reefs was understood, produced no gold. All it had was an abundant supply of water in the hollow that someone had named ‘Sans Souci’.”
Miscellaneous pictures of Braamfontein
Thelma Gutsche’s ‘A very smart medal’ on the detailed history of the show were invaluable for this piece as where the pictures from the book presented here.